#Jayalalithaa: Feared, hated, admired, deified. Never loved.

The year was 1982 and I was a rookie reporter out on one of my first assignments.  Jayalalithaa (then spelt with a single ‘a’) had been invited to meet the press at the Chennai (then Madras) Press Club. A couple of days earlier Chennai dailies had featured a photograph prominently on their front pages: it was of Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran sitting together and watching the Asian Games. The Chief Reporter of the daily I was interning at had asked me to attend the Press Club meet. He also told me to ask Jayalalithaa a specific question: What did she feel about the photograph of her and M G Ramachandran featured on the front pages of the newspapers?

I was excited about the assignment and, when I got the chance to ask a question, naively reeled off the one my Chief had ‘planted’ on me.  I don’t remember the answer Jayalalithaa  gave, but the question or the answer to it set off a flurry of ancillary questions from other hacks at the venue, which prompted the moderator to intervene and say, ‘She is our guest and I request you all to give her the respect due to a guest,’ or words to that effect.

The next morning, when I entered the newsroom, spread across the tables were several vernacular dailies, each with screaming headlines gloating over how a young reporter had taken on Jayalalithaa. The Chief welcomed me with a huge grin and an exuberant ‘Bravo!’ But a senior correspondent was on the phone explaining to someone on the other side, ‘She’s just an intern, very new to the job, you know …’ She looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘Whatever made you ask her such a question?’ I had obviously stirred up a hornet’s nest!  When I explained that it was the Chief’s idea, the correspondent looked daggers at him. He guffawed, mightily amused.  I was flummoxed. My senior then advised me to be more circumspect.

When I reached home that night, my mother was excited and agitated: she had been attending calls all day enquiring if there was someone at home who was working in a newspaper and asking to talk to that person!

As televisions beamed Jayalalithaa’s final journey yesterday, I was reminded of the intangible fear and the very tangible hatred that seemed to hang about in the newsroom that day in 1982. But yesterday there was only mass adulation on display including of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Rigid political divisions dissolved in a universal admiration of her indomitable spirit. Even the media embraced her.

Fear and hate were no longer relevant as the entity that provoked those emotions was no more; but love was absent: there was no family, no friend, none she could call her own: As in life, so in death, Jayalalithaa was towering but alone.


Trampling on faith


Turf Clubs are exclusive public places. There is no space there for activists who would question the right of a human to goad a horse to trot at a pace faster than it would like or to force the animal to negotiate hurdles wilfully placed on its path.

Temples, too, are exclusive public places. They are meant for believers to congregate, worship and offer prayers with devotion.  They are not spaces for activists to try their hand at modernising practices they consider archaic or to mock the unquestioning acceptance of traditions by the faithful.

In much the same way as activists, non-believers who run-down one or another deity cannot appreciate the sentiments of the faithful. Be they #Durga worshippers or #Mahishasura worshippers, Vamana-Trivikrama or #Mahabali worshippers, they are all together under the band of the devout. They find qualities that are noble in the object of their worship. This belief is not mere fodder for political adversaries to settle scores.

Re-visiting the #DelhiVerdict one month on


Was the #DelhiVerdict a vote for Kejriwal’s claim of clean governance or a vote by vested interests against Modi-Bedi’s non-corruptible credentials?

I had expressed this doubt a month ago, soon after the Delhi election results were out. I imagined the trigger of suspicion was natural: Nothing in the run-up to the elections gave us to believe that there was such a groundswell of support for AAP that the mandate would be so lopsided.  Even the most optimistic projection gave them a little more than 50 seats – not a near sweep.  Kejriwal himself had been laying the grounds for explaining a possible defeat (EVMs dysfunctional; voter lists doctored; EC deliberately indulging in go-slow policy on voting day …).  So, what could best explain the massive mandate?  I argued that the fear of a truly clean combine in the form of a Bedi-Modi duo scared the vested interests so much that they preferred the untested entity called Kejriwal, who, by then, had possibly been ‘found out’ by these interests.  The gullible Delhi voter, of course, contributed in good faith.  But people just drowned me out, and branded me an unapologetic cynic who could never see a good thing even when the world slams it in the face.

With the AAP story now unravelling quicker than a party bunting, I assert with greater certainty: The #DelhiVerdict was less a vote for Kejriwal’s claim of clean governance and more a vote by vested interests against Modi-Bedi’s non-corruptible credentials.  There are unlikely to be sniggers this time round.  And I am more likely to be seen as a seer than a sceptic :>)

Children: objectified, reduced to a mere statistic.

Children ceased being just bundles of joy since a couple of decades.  For many, they had become a ‘responsibility’.  One did not just enjoy having them and/ or having them around.  One had to ‘plan’ when to squeeze them in depending on career needs, care-giver availability, and even travel plans in the case of global parents who had a choice of countries that they could offer their yet to be born offspring to choose to be citizens of.  But, at least, children were still considered human organisms.

The position of children took a turn for the worse when they became objects of scientific and social experimentation: think sperm and egg banks, advocacy of free living, surrogacy and so on.  Most recently, self-proclaimed spiritual leaders have been urging the devout adherents of their respective creeds to bring more children into the world – so that they may save their faith from extinction or claim pride of place as the world’s most populous religion.  Children, now, have been reduced to a mere statistic.  Join the race or be damned.

PostScript: Science and religion may well come together and set up labs that can reproduce babies on demand for every kind of need: to pass on your inheritance, to borrow an organ, to populate your faith, to churn out a workforce, you name it.  And lobbyists and social scientists would be kept busy arguing for/ against the rights/ freedoms of citizens and tracking the grossness of the new world and predicting worse …

Those magnificent Indians and their flights of imagination …


From transplanted organs to test tube babies, vaccines to vehicles in space – every modern-day advance in science has been beyond the pale of imagination till it happened.  Any imaginings about such possibilities much before the time of such inventions would have been considered the stuff of fiction.  No imaginings provoked the inventions of modern science. It is politically incorrect and rationally impossible to claim that they did.  But one may be permitted to ask: could the ones who imagined have gone on to invent too, if they had the opportunity to do it or to inspire another?  Surely, the ‘two cultures’ are not all that distanced from each other!  Did not those magnificent mortals who once fooled around with flying machines go on to land Philae on comet 67P, letting their unmanned flying machine wander in space for ten years before it found an opportunity to do what they had imagined it could?  Had mortals never tried to fly, God having decided to make them wingless creatures, would we have vehicles vying for space in space?  While the history of modern science and science fiction can be satisfactorily debated, the same does not hold good for the possibilities and potentialities that prevailed in pre-history of even recent vintage.

Take the case of coffee, a compulsory aid to scientific endeavour:  We know a little bit of its history.  But it boggles the mind to imagine that out of all the plants that were around, someone should have chosen this one to try brewing a decoction after subjecting the seed to a multiple level processing: stewing, separating fruit from seed, drying, roasting, powdering, decanting after pouring boiling water over the stuff.  Surely, the inventor of coffee did a certain amount of ‘science’ though the chronicles of his experimentation are lost in the mists of myth.  But this is far simpler stuff, it seems than the creation of the laddu – a permanent fixture on the politician’s palate: not only has a particular legume to be processed and powdered.  It has to be subjected to a medley of cooking processes and mixed thereafter with spices in sweetened syrup, which in turn has to be of a particular consistency, and the whole allowed to marinade before being shaped into spheres.  A culinary invention merely, true, but a complex one nevertheless, that might have called for a scientific spirit at least, if not science as it is understood.

When there is so little we can know even about the simpler everyday things of life, how much more distanced may we be from the more complex happenings in the life and times of our myth-makers!

Our children aren’t safe. Our collective conscience is dead.

A child goes walking with her aunt on a main road in a major city, slips, falls into a storm water drain, and drowns. Her body is found, far from where she fell, a few days later. The little girl, not yet ten, had to die because an irresponsible civic administration failed to do its duty.

Another child goes out to play with his friend in a playground on a college campus, and drowns trying to retrieve a ball from a 6 foot deep pit that is filled with water. The little boy, also barely ten, died because the company who had the contract to construct an additional building on the college campus had dug up pits for columns, and neither fenced them nor provided a warning about their existence.

These are not isolated incidents; they have become so commonplace that the conscience of the citizenry is not provoked.  Death of young children due to callous negligence of authorities, abuse of children by those in positions of power … everything is fodder for 24×7 news channels who do their daily bit and pass on. The citizenry tube-watch while snacking on pasta, sip a cuppa, switch the channel, and move on. Tomorrow is another day.

Education: deliberate misunderstandings and the undermining of the underdogs


The broadside against India’s new minister for Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani , re-opens a debate that is as old as the hills: What is Education? #SmritiIrani, her detractors have it, is someone without the requisite academic credentials to do full justice to a ministry that deals with the Education sector. Just turn the argument on its head: how many professors of, say, business schools, have managed a business at any point in their lives? As someone with deep interest in the area, I’m often baffled by the chutzpah with which academics – who are probably unaware that they seem rather wet behind their ears to grassroots investigators – impose their ideas on the policy-making exercise! One can only attribute their nerve to what the Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘the hazards of confidence’.  The debate over what is education also opens up memories of two outstanding visions of education by two exceptional individuals – M K Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari [Gandhiji and Rajaji] – which were rubbished and drowned in a volley of criticism.

In his #WardhaEducationScheme, in 1937, Gandhiji proposed that in the first seven years of schooling, education be carried on through a craft activity that would help the child relate the 3Rs and more to real life situations arising from the physical and social environment of the child. A holistic learning experience would go hand in hand with training in a vocation that the child could, perhaps, take up profitably in the absence of an aptitude towards scholarship of an academic nature. He was talking of ‘activity-based learning’ long before terms like ‘child-centred’ and ‘alternative education’ became fashionable and as a response to the prevalent system of formal education, which he castigated as ‘uninspired by any life-giving or creative ideal’. Criticised roundly as a ‘scheme of production with conscript labour’, Gandhi’s vision of basic education was dumped by those who were not as far-sighted as he.

In 1953, #Rajaji launched a crafts-based learning model in the primary schools of Madras province. Rather than ‘hammering down the curiosity of a child’, these schools would convert ‘drowsy and hazy children’ into eager members of ‘village polytechnics’. The plan was designed on the following lines: reduction of in-class hours, and use of the freed hours in learning crafts and arts from the families in the existing social milieu. The out-of-class programme would be supervised by craftsmen and farmers, and not the school’s teachers. The same set of school buildings would, therefore, become two kinds of learning environments and have two models of teaching all in a regular school day. The ‘polytechnic’ part of the education would draw on each village’s human resources and depend on their occupational profile.

Says #RajmohanGandhi, author of The Rajaji Story 1937-1972*, and grandson of both Rajaji and Gandhiji whose offspring were united in wedlock, ‘At the end of the year … in Madura, scene of sustained agitation against the scheme, admissions had gone up by 40 per cent.’ But, whereas Rajaji saw ‘relief and smiles on the faces of the Tamil boys, and dexterity coming to their fingers, … the fathers of some of them saw malice in C.R.’s heart. They were encouraged to do this by the fiery, bearded E.V.R., [Erode Venkata Ramaswamy Naicker]’. A majority began to see Rajaji’s scheme as a brahmin’s way to perpetuate the caste system, ‘to confine boys of the lower castes to their fathers’ occupations’. Rajaji would argue: ‘Was not learning by rote one of the country’s diseases? Did it not, in fact, favour the brahmins, who were good at memorizing? Following the reform, would not the children of illiterate artisans score over the other class of children? The reform would bring the castes together, not separate them.’ But people whose minds are made up are not swayed by good sense. A programme of educational reform that could have, at no extra cost to the exchequer, done wonders for improving literacy, getting and retaining children in school, preserving heritage and removing prejudice towards manual labour was dumped by a hostile opposition limited by its own interests and prejudices.

‘It is mistake to imagine that the school is within the walls,’ Rajaji proclaimed, ‘The whole village is the school. The village polytechnic is there, every branch of it: the potter, the dhobi, the wheelwright, the cobbler.’ But as the diatribe against Smriti Irani proves, we, as a society, are still limited by our boxed in idea of education – as something that happens within the four walls of an institution rather than in the rough and tumble of the real world.

*Acknowledgement: Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of Rajaji has been a source of inspiration, and I have drawn generously on the book’s rich content to write this piece.